The consistency of Mookie Betts’s negotiating style
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Almost as soon as the words were uttered, after a handful of thumbs hit “Tweet” on Mookie Betts’s statement — “I don’t expect anything to happen ’til I’m a free agent” — a succession of conclusions followed like toppling dominoes.
He won’t re-sign with the Red Sox. The Sox have to trade him before he walks and leaves the team with nothing in return. Etc.
So, let’s get this out of the way: Would Betts, who has made no secret of his comfort negotiating contracts with the Red Sox on a year-to-year basis, rule out the possibility of signing an extension before he reaches free agency?
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Betts. “I wouldn’t say, ‘Nope, I’m just not going to sign a deal.’ That would be a lie. But there’s a value that’s there. I think I’m going to stick to my guns on the value. It’s not necessarily not signing a deal.”
Betts’s history of negotiations with the Red Sox is instructive, particularly his entry into pro ball. In 2011, after the Red Sox drafted Betts in the fifth round, the player and club struggled to reach agreement on his value.
Betts was asking for $750,000; on the day of the signing deadline, the team was at $500,000. Betts was prepared to go to the University of Tennessee.
The Sox didn’t want to risk that, and agreed to his $750,000 bonus demand shortly before the deadline. Betts got what he viewed as fair value. A deal got done.
In 2017, after he finished second in American League MVP voting, Betts didn’t see eye-to-eye with the Red Sox on his value. The team renewed his contract at $950,000.
In 2018, Betts and the Red Sox disagreed on his value in his first time through arbitration. Betts didn’t settle on a midpoint. Instead, he went to arbitration and won, receiving $10.5 million instead of the club’s offer of $7.5 million.
In each instance, Betts wanted his value — and usually got it. He’s made millions by virtue of the fact that he didn’t rush to take what was offered, but instead remained committed to what he considered his worth. Yet even as he made a lot of money in striking such a stance, he established and strengthened his relationship with the Red Sox.
“You could look at it as lessons of waiting it out,” Betts said. “But learning from my parents, you have to stand for something, too. You get to a point where it’s just, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ You can’t waver.”
That approach doesn’t mean that Betts doesn’t like being with the Red Sox, or that he can’t envision a long-term future with the team.
“I love it here,” he said. “I’d love to be here. I love my teammates, the front office, coaches, everybody. I couldn’t ask for a better organization to be a part of. But at the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself. You don’t want to sell yourself short.”
Such considerations have been on Betts’s mind this spring — as well as those of teammates who are moving closer to free agency, whether after 2019 (Xander Bogaerts, Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, J.D. Martinez if he opts out, Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez, Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce) or 2020 (Jackie Bradley Jr.).
Against that roster backdrop, every major extension and free agent signing — including Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Alex Bregman — has been at the center of a months-long conversation about salaries and contracts and the business of baseball inside the Red Sox clubhouse.
Betts recognizes that, but with the start of the season nearing, he’s eager for the team to redirect its focus to where it was last year — with the players investing their energy into what’s happening on the field, and how to concoct a plan to beat their opponents.
“There’s definitely talk about [contracts],” said Betts. “Everybody kind of knows what’s going on. This game is a business, for sure. You really can’t duck and dodge those things. They’re a part of the game.
“We just have to push those things aside and not worry about it right now. Yeah, we may not be together next year, but we’re together now. That’s why I’m like, ‘Either we are going to do it or we’re not.’ “Just kind of keep it away from the team, keep it away from myself so we can focus on winning another World Series.”
Is Betts confident that when the team gets to Seattle, it will be focused on what’s happening on the playing field rather than at the negotiating table?
“I think so, especially with this group and especially with [Alex Cora] and the coaching staff,” he said. “They do a great job of kind of switching our focus.
“In spring training, if you’re going to talk about that stuff, that’s the time to do it. But I think as soon as the first game hits, that all has to go out the window. We can’t worry about anything. We’re in it now. We have to focus on our final goal.”